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World War One - Private Harold William Joyner

A member of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Harold Joyner was drafted into the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) on the 16th February 1916. On 28th April 1917 he was taken prisoner at Gavrelle, when his battalion formed part of the 188th Brigade of the Royal Naval Division. This information is supplied on the Royal Marine Medal Roll.

In commemoration of casualties from Scarborough, a page on the website of the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre (link here) gives us the location of Gavrelle and carries the following graphic account of the action there in which Harold was captured, having been cut off by German forces and suffered wounds which were in the end to prove fatal.

The Royal Marines at Gavrelle

Virtually forgotten in the never-ending saga of the First World War, Gavrelle, a small village in north-eastern France, lying at the eastern end of the Arras battlefield, had nevertheless been the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the Arras Offensive. It is lost between the battlefields of Ypres and Passchendaele to the north and the Somme to the south, and overshadowed by Vimy Ridge a few kilometres to the north. The village is rarely visited by the thousands of pilgrims who flock each year to the Western Front even though many hundreds of soldiers, airmen, civilians, and especially Royal Marines and sailors of the 63rd [Royal Naval] Division had lost their lives there.

At the start of the Arras Offensive, Gavrelle had been a fortified village in the third line of forward defences of the Hindenburg Line and had lain some miles behind the fighting line. However, by the second week it was to become a prominent target for the British Army because of its importance as part of the Arleux Loop defensive line, and in addition, if Gavrelle and the high ground to the north of the village could be taken, then the British Army would have had excellent observation of practically the whole of the Douai Plain beyond.

The task of capturing the village had eventually been given to the men of the Royal Naval Division, who, despite sleet, snow, and bitter fighting had captured Gavrelle on St George’s Day, the 23rd April 1917. During the days after the 23rd the German artillery had become ‘very active’, by continuously pouring artillery fire into the R.N.D. and their newly won possessions.

Action on Saturday, 28th April 1917

A second attack around the village had been planned for the 28th. The purpose of this assault had been to support attacks by the Canadian Corps and British 2nd Division at Arleux and Oppy Wood to the north. The objectives had been the capture of the village’s ruined windmill and high ground to the northeast, which had been barring any advance out of Gavrelle, and threatening the British hold on it. Furthermore, the attack had been intended to support an assault to the south by 37th Division on a German position known as ‘Greenland Hill’.

The attack had been allocated to the 188th Brigade of the Royal Naval Division, which had consisted of the First and Second Battalions of Royal Marines Light Infantry, supported by the First Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company from the Division’s 190th Brigade. First Royal Marines had been required to form a defensive flank for the 2nd Division on its left, thus protecting the Second’s right flank. It had been planned that this would be achieved by an advance in three stages, capturing three lines of trenches and penetrating to a depth of 1000 yards. Their first objective had been some unfinished trenches behind the German front line. Once these had been taken the unit was then to send fighting patrols out and then link up with units from the Second Division in the north and Second Royal Marines in the south.

The second part of the plan was to be carried out by Second Royal Marines. They were to advance out of Gavrelle and move down the Fresnes road to a depth of seven hundred yards. Starting from within the village the unit had two separate objectives, the capture of the mill on the high ground to the north east, and a section of unfinished trenches to the south of the Gavrelle to Izel road, where, once the supporting artillery barrage had passed over they had been ordered to patrol up and consolidate the trenches. Hereabouts the battalion should have linked up with 1st Royal Marines to the north and the Division’s Anson Battalion to the south.

The third phase of the assault had been allocated to the sailors of ‘C’ Company of the Anson Battalion. This unit would follow after 2nd R.M. and peel off to the south to form a flank guard, as there had still been an enemy presence just outside Gavrelle in that area. The Anson’s task had been to protect the southern flank and to form a link from the village cemetery, to the south, to the final objective of 2nd R.M.

Accompanied by a creeping barrage First Royal Marines had begun their assault at 4.25 a.m. on Saturday the 28th April. Beginning from just north of the village the four companies had soon made their way to the enemy’s barbed wire, which they had found to be uncut by the artillery bombardment. Here many of the men had settled into shell holes in front of the German line where they had been eventually cut to ribbons by the enemy’s fire from a nearby strongpoint. To help alleviate the desperate straits that the Marines had been in at 6.30 a.m. the men of 1st Honourable Artillery Company had been ordered forward to try to suppress this strongpoint with mortar fire. An officer from the unit had later written;

‘At any rate we went along to this blockade where the railway was and the attack started and nothing happened. We could see these fellows, fifty yards on our left the nearest of them were. They were getting hung up on the wire and it was absolutely hopeless. They were a battalion of Marines, but they, poor chaps, could not get through the wire’…

Nothing had been heard from 1st Royal Marines since the beginning of their assault. However, at 7.15 news had been received at Headquarters that a wounded Marine had said that the wire had been very strong, but a number of the men had got through and gone on. An aircraft flying over the area had also reported that a group of around twenty marines had been seen in the first objective the men had fired flares to alert the plane. This had been the last that had been seen of First Royal Marines.

Accounts of what had happened to the unit had eventually been gleaned from the wounded and it had been learnt that the first two waves of the battalion had got to their objectives, but had then been hit hard by a massive counter attack, which despite desperate hand to hand fighting had overpowered the right hand battalion of Second Division and the marines.

With 1st Royal Marines virtually wiped out by this time, pockets of Marines, trapped behind the German counter attack had nevertheless fought on until they had either been killed or taken prisoner. A flare had been seen hovering over the unit’s second objective at 9.40 am; this had been the last sighting.

[Records of the Royal Naval Division show that Harold Joyner fought in the 16th platoon of ‘D’ Company, 2nd Battalion:]

The Second Battalion had in the meantime captured the enemy’s first line of trenches near the windmill and had gone on to find the wire in front of the second line cut in only one place. ‘A’, ‘C’, and ‘D’ Companies had streamed through the gap to reach their objective only to be cut off and suffer heavy casualties. Eventually, with no hope of relief, the survivors of the three companies had surrendered. Number five platoon of ‘B’ Company, commanded by Lieutenant Newling, had nevertheless captured the windmill by 7 a.m. and sent a number of prisoners back to the British line, throughout the remainder of the day repeated enemy counter attacks on the windmill had been beaten back, albeit with severe casualties, by the marines assisted by artillery fire.

The remainder of ‘B’ Company had spent the day pinned down by machine gun fire and finally succeeded in joining Newling’s gallant band after dark. At 8-30 p.m. the German’s had launched their final counter attack on the windmill. By this time the Marines of ‘B’ Company, whose rifles and machine guns were so choked with mud that practically none of them could be fired, had been reinforced by sailors of the Anson Battalion; this assault had also been beaten off with the aid of artillery. In all the Germans had launched thirteen counter attacks. By the end of the days fighting forty Royal Marines had still been in possession of the mill and outposts around it. In all they had repulsed over a dozen determined counter attacks.

The cost to the Royal Marines had been appalling and remains to the present day as the largest casualty list for one day’s fighting in the Corps history. Out of close on two thousand officers and men of the two battalions who had taken to the field that day over a thousand had become casualties. The Second Battalion had incurred six hundred all ranks killed, wounded, and missing, whilst the First Battalion had lost over five hundred officers and men killed, wounded, and missing, including the unit’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel F.J.W. Cartwright D.S.O., who had lost his life along with six other officers.

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Harold Joyner was evacuated to a POW camp in Germany, where, according to his medal roll, he died of his wounds on November 1st 1918, ten days before the Armistice was signed and hostilities ceased. The fact that he had survived for eighteen months after receiving his wounds might suggest that the conditions he would have suffered in captivity, such as overcrowding, poor food, clothing and sanitation, and only a modicum of medical assistance, gradually wore him down.

By a sad coincidence, one of the two soldiers from Scarborough commemorated on the page which includes the above account, Lance-Corporal Wilfrid Swalwell, also died in captivity in Germany, just nine days after Harold.